A deep sadness hangs over the Seattle basketball world today, softened by joyful memories.
They just lost a big part of their heart, their soul, their conscience and their funny bone.
Jim Marsh, who died near Portland on Monday at age 73, was all of that, and so much more. No one was more beloved. No one was more respected. No one was more fun to be around. The Parkinson’s disease that was diagnosed in 2004 slowly ate away at his body, but it left his mind and spirit undeterred.
Marsh’s quips are legendary. An undersized 6-foot-7 center at USC, he joked that he held Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to 56 points in his first college game for UCLA. When he fizzled out of the NBA after one season in Portland, he told people that Bill Walton replaced him. That led eventually to a 12-year career as a Sonics television announcer.
“He was so witty and smart and funny,” said Chuck Williams, who coached with Marsh in the fledgling days of the seminal Friends of Hoop AAU program that helped put Seattle basketball in the forefront. “I remember him telling stories to our different teams, from the beginning of time, it seemed like. He had a story for every occasion.”
It was an equal-opportunity love affair. It didn’t matter if you were an NBA star such as Isaiah Thomas or Jamal Crawford, or a kid who just loved hoops with no chance of being anything more than a bench-warmer. He had time for them all. Marsh gave his heart over to young people, both as a longtime coach with Friends of Hoop and as president of Mentoring Works Washington.
At the Jammin’ Hoops camps he ran all over the country for more than a decade – with the help of friends like Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Marques Johnson, Gary Payton and scores of other NBA stars – Marsh instructed the coaches to say each player’s name with a compliment and a smile.
Why? “Because many of these kids have never had anyone say a good word.”
“Jim worked without bias,” Cleveland High School coach Jerry Petty said. “He created a lot of opportunity for inner-city youth that may not have otherwise been awarded to them.”
“There are many in our profession who say, ‘I’m in it for the kids,’ but they have their own agenda,” said former Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, now at Pepperdine. “Not Jim. He was one that was truly, truly in it for the kids.
“You knew that, and the kids sensed that. It was so genuine. They trusted him so much.”
If Marsh heard about a player who couldn’t afford a snack on a road trip, he’d quietly provide one. If a youngster didn’t have a ride, Jim would take him. He’d make sure everyone had a good pair of shoes.
“His American Express card was pretty beat up,” Williams said with a rueful laugh. “He’d pull that out to pay for a meal or help a guy get a ticket or fly to a kid’s graduation.”
And he’d do it without fanfare – a thousand tiny acts of kindness that, when looked at in their totality, were the measure of a selfless man. Williams has never forgotten how whenever someone asked if Marsh was the head coach at FOH, he’d unfailingly respond, “No, I’m the co-coach. Chuck is my co-coach. We’re doing this together.” That empowered Williams’ successful coaching career, he said.
“You hear all these things, especially in today’s game, about what’s wrong with basketball,” Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea said. “You don’t hear enough about what’s right with basketball. Jim was a representative of what’s right with basketball.”
On road trips, the lessons Marsh handed out would go far beyond boxing out on rebounds and the nuances of the fast break.
“He taught them about life – how to tip, to leave something for the maid, open doors for people,” Williams said. “He’d have us pull up our pants and take off our hats as we walked in and out of different venues. Just a lot of things bigger than basketball.”
Once you were a friend of Marsh, you were a friend for life – and he had scores of friends who today are trying to envision life without his larger-than-life presence. The legion of players who came out of Seattle and achieved fame at the college and pro level, they were all fiercely loyal to Marsh. It’s a Who’s Who of 206 and 253 basketball royalty – Thomas, Crawford, Spencer Hawes, Jon Brockman, Mitch Johnson, Martell Webster, Nate Robinson, Zach Lavine, Joe Harris, Dejounte Murray and so many more.
“Those guys would do anything for him,” Romar said.
Now they’re all in mourning. Social media has been flooded with tributes from the likes of Thomas and Crawford. On Monday, many of the Friends of Hoops players were making plans for a trek to Portland to visit Marsh at the assisted-living facility he moved to about a year ago. They knew Marsh had transitioned to hospice care a couple weeks ago, and time was running out.
“That’s part of what’s eating at me so much, that I couldn’t see him in time,” Hawes said. “But talking to Isaiah last night, our last memory was shooting in the gym with him (during a previous visit) where he was happiest, and felt the most comfortable. That’s something I’ll cherish the rest of my life.”
The courage and determination with which Marsh dealt with his Parkinson’s is the stuff of legend among the Seattle basketball community. He continued to play pickup basketball at the Bellevue Club until just a few years ago. He didn’t stop coaching for FOH until this past spring and summer. When he couldn’t drive anymore, Marsh would bicycle or take the bus to games – but he’d get there.
Marsh may have shed some tears over the toll the disease took on him, but he never felt sorry for himself – or allowed anyone else to.
“It’s tough, because we all have so many positive memories,” Hawes said. “When you start thinking about them, that’s how they have to live on now. To not be around his uplifting spirit, hear his stories, his reassurance – it’s sad, but at the same time, no one knows how much he was suffering. The fact that he doesn’t have to go through that and battle every day, it’s given all of us reassurance he’s in a better place.”
The beauty of Marsh, Hawes said, was that you didn’t have to be on his teams for him to take you under his wing. Some of his closest relationships were with players – and coaches – from other programs.
“He would drop everything to do anything for anyone before himself,” said Jeremy Eggers, the director and head coach of Friends of Hoop. “He was so well-respected by everyone, even people he competed against.”
In many cities, another high-level local program such as Seattle Rotary basketball, would have fostered a bitter rivalry with Friends of Hoop, but Marsh never let that happen.
“He didn’t have to be your coach to be your coach, if that makes sense,” Hawes said. “He was kind of Seattle’s coach.”
That’s a perfect legacy for Jim Marsh.